The prime minister confirmed on Monday that hundreds of licences for retrieving fossil fuels from the North Sea will be issued in the autumn.
This has infuriated environmentalists, who claim the UK is focusing on more fossil fuels rather than renewable energy sources.
However, the PM has alleged that even when the UK achieves net zero in 2050, it will still need oil and gas, so it’s better to have more locally sourced energy supplies.
Alongside the new oil and gas licences, Downing Street has revealed plans for two new carbon capture and storage facilities.
But just what might this mean for the UK and its climate pledges? Here’s a look at the facts.
What are the arguments in favour of the new scheme?
Sunak told BBC Scotland on Monday that this policy is “better for our energy security” so the UK isn’t reliant on “foreign dictators”.
The UK – along with much of Europe – was subjected to soaring energy bills last year after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, as the beleaguered country’s allies extracted themselves from Russia’s fossil fuel exports as part of the sanctions against Moscow.
Less than 3% of the gas Britain used was from Russia, but it was the scramble on international supplies among countries which did use Russian exports which caused UK energy bills to go up – triggering the cost of living crisis.
However, if the UK is to reach net zero, it would have to wind down its use of fossil fuels anyway, as the UK website following climate change policy, Carbon Brief, noted – so the need to import oil and gas would fall, too.
It’s worth remembering that any fossil fuels mined from the North Sea belong to the licence holder anyway – and most of those are multinational or state-owned fossil fuel companies owned by other national governments, according to Carbon Brief.
In fact, approximately 80% of the oil produced in UK waters is already exported, according to Greenpeace.
Good for jobs and the economy
Energy security secretary Grant Shapps said in a statement: “Our next steps to develop carbon capture and storage, in Scotland and the Humber, will also help to build a thriving new industry for our North Sea that could support as many as 50,000 jobs, as we deliver on our priority of growing the economy.”
However, the transition into net zero is expected to offer between 135,000 and 725,000 net new jobs, according to analysis from UK government’s independent climate advisers on the Climate Change Committee.
In its assessment of the impact on the economy, the CCC also found the UK will reach net-zero by 2050, meeting that target could see a GDP boost of around 2% within a decade.
Reduce carbon footprint
On Monday morning, Sunak said these new oil and gas fields will be “better for the environment because there’s no point in importing stuff from halfway around the world, with two to three times the carbon footprint of the stuff we’ve got at home.”
However, environmentalists at Greenpeace claimed last week that the new oil and gasfields will emit the same amount of carbon as 14 million cars – or the entire yearly emissions of Denmark.
Campaigners at Uplift, an anti-fossil fuel group, also said that although it will exceed the carbon targets set out for the oil and gas sector by the CCC – it won’t necessarily ruin the UK’s overall carbon budget, if other sectors cut their own emissions.
Going to be reliant on fossil fuels for decades
Minister for nuclear and networks, Andrew Bowie, told BBC Breakfast: “This is absolutely in line with our net zero commitments.
“The independent Committee on Climate Change said we’re going to be relying, at least in part, on fossil fuels for our energy, for many decades to come.”
The prime minister also told BBC Radio Scotland on Monday: “When we reach net zero in 2050, a quarter of our energy needs will still come from oil and gas, and domestic gas production has about a quarter or a third of the carbon footprint of imported gas.”
Indeed, the International Energy Agency predicted that energy consumption needs to decline to just below 20% in 2050 even in net zero scenarios.
The European Central Bank claimed: “Fossil fuels are still projected to be used for producing non‐energy goods, in plants with carbon capture, and in sectors where emissions are especially difficult to reduce. All remaining emissions in 2050 are assumed to be offset by negative emissions elsewhere.”
Indeed the independent Climate Change Committee has acknowledged that this shift away from fossil fuels will not always be quick.
However, Carbon Brief pointed out that oil and gas licences typically take around 28 years to harvest new fossil fuels – meaning they may not produce anything until 2030s or 2050s.
Carbon capture removes CO2 from industrial processes and pumps it into oil and gas fields, a mile or more below the seabed, meaning the emissions would be stuck in rocks instead of in the Earth’s atmosphere.
However, this isn’t the perfect solution.
A report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis from September last year found underperforming carbon capture projects outnumber the successful ones.
The author of the report, Bruce Robertson, said: “Many international bodies and national government are relying on carbon capture in the fossil fuel sector to get to net zero, and it simply won’t work.”
It’s also criticised for being a distraction – and that fossil fuels should be stopped altogether, rather than trying to be counteracted. MIT Technology Review suggested the technique offered “unrealistic expectations” back in 2021.
What do opponents say?
Ignores current climate challenges
Extreme weather events in recent weeks have brought the climate crisis even closer – making the decision to mine for more fossil fuels especially controversial.
Oxfam’s climate policy adviser Lyndsay Walsh told The Guardian: “Extracting more fossil fuels from the North Sea will send a wrecking ball through the UK’s climate commitments at a time when we should be investing in a just transition to a low-carbon economy and our own abundant renewables.”
Mike Childs, the head of policy for Friends of the Earth, also told the newspaper: “Climate change is already battering the planet with unprecedented wildfires and heatwaves across the globe. Granting hundreds of new oil and gas licences will simply pour more fuel on the flames, while doing nothing for energy security as these fossil fuels will be sold on international markets and not reserved for UK use.”
The International Energy Agency also warned in May 2021 that no new developments of fossil fuels could be constructed if the world was to limit global temperatures to 1.5C compared to the pre-industrial climate.
The North Sea is already in decline
Much of the North Sea’s fossil fuel supplies have already been mined – meaning we need to find an alternative.
A Scottish government minister said in January that the production of oil and gas in the North Sea is expected to be around a third of 1999 levels by 2035.
Michael Matheson said: “That projection takes account of the remaining potential development in the North Sea and is without any political decision to reduce consumption due to the climate emergency.
“This means that domestic production will effectively end within the next 20 years if we do nothing.”